In many ways, gangsta rap messiah Tupac Shakur was the new world order of hard-boiled post-Reaganomics fury. Shakur, a hip-hop raconteur who painted surround sound portraits of African-American life, and was shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the age of 25, helped shine a light on the alarming perils of the urban black experience. A voice of his generation, his message though controversial, still inspires today. Welcoming the inaugural production of the 2014-2015 Broadway season, critically-acclaimed director Kenny Leon probes the prodigious catalogues of the prolific rap icon with a heavy-handed, familiar, non-biographical tale of struggling denizens ensnared by psycho-sociological sickness in Holler If Ya Hear Me.
Returning home, John (played by Saul Williams), a brooding ex-con poet and pastor’s son released from five years of incarceration after murdering the gangbanger that shot his pious father, has an altered perspective on thug life. Bitter, he decides to go straight and leave the magnetic pull of the streets behind. But his charming best friend Vertus (Christopher Jackson), now a common hustler, seems to thrive on it. Both men come from similar households in the same Midwestern ‘hood, and have the love of the same woman (Corinne, a long suffering but hopeful girl next door; played by Saycon Sengbloh). But when Vertus’ brother Benny (played by Donald Webber, Jr.), a neighborhood youth with aspirations of making it in California, is killed in cold blood by an unseen rival gang, a debate unfolds: Should Vertus, John and their crew of loyal cronies take revenge or turn the other cheek? On one hand, this is John’s second chance, as he takes over a low-wage, dead-end job at a car-salvage company where Benny worked with his best friend Griffy (Ben Thompson), the sole white character in the show. On the other hand, the grieving Vertus, is tormented by visions of how to make Benny’s death “mean something.”
From there, much of the story pays homage to Tupac Shakur’s debut studio album 2Pacalypse Now and his later material, which details and addresses a plethora of social issues contributing to the endless cycle of violence plaguing ghetto youths. Racism, police harassment, teenage pregnancy, peer pressure and socioeconomic fruitlessness combine to create an atomic Molotov cocktail in which the world of the musical is based. And Tupac’s lyrics—which synthesizes 60s counterculture black political thought and the inner city brutality that encourages crime out of sheer pragmatism—speaks volumes, spewing blood on the microphone. From any vantage point, one could argue because of this, that hip-hop’s finest is in fact overdue for turn on Broadway.
After all, rap has had resurgence on and off Broadway within the last seven years: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Spanish-infused rap musical In the Heights won audiences over, while Matt Sax’s pseudo-intellectual dystopian hip hopera Venice, which premiered at The Public last year, helped push an effort to expand the horizons of the theatergoing mob. Holler If Ya Hear Me, however, differs because it is essentially a typical jukebox musical, filled to the brim with previously recorded hits of a platinum-selling superstar that may or may not appeal to the average theatergoer, even if the book is written with paint-by-numbers razzle-dazzle.
This hip-hop Disneyfication is a whitewashed representation of arguably one of the most influential artists of all time, which caters to homogenous MOR theatregoers without ever delivering an element of hazard. It’s all hearsay, as all the danger happens offstage. With the spine of the story comes an unflinching ineptitude in trying to highlight the circumstance of struggling African-American folk in communities ravaged by smack, infection and poverty. Writer Todd Kreidler, who spent many years under the tutelage of prominent playwright August Wilson, instead creates a generic patchwork of discernible illusion to the 1957 West Side Story and a compendium of clichés along the way, with predictable plot points that can be seen from miles away: The hotheaded embryonic Mafioso obsessed with avenging his idol; the chump trying to prove he’s got “the juice”; and the gaggle of goons that minuet around the edgy rustic set designed by Edward Pierce, playing every typecast imaginable while hitting every hyperkinetic, Stomp The Yard choreography in Wayne Cilento’s savvy arsenal.
The biggest disappointment of the show is the mostly underutilized talent: the ensemble is forced to work with ballpark depictions. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins, back on Broadway after legendary performances in Jelly’s Last Jam, Play On! and Caroline, or Change, is given very little stage time and is diminished to play a former crackhead single mother, a muse only to service Christopher Jackson’s standout rendition of “Dear Mama.” Dyllon Burnside, making his Broadway debut, finds exquisite moments of vulnerability, while inevitable leading lady Saycon Sengloh raises temperatures with her dark ‘n stormy mezzo-soprano but the patchwork material leaves audiences craving more.
Tupac’s original message—controversial and pointed—was never hindered, never truncated and never filtered to fit the lens of the audience, but in this production it is one that dares not holler to be heard.
Holler If Ya Hear Me
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.